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Today New City Initiative is comprised of 48 leading independent asset management firms from the UK and the Continent, managing approximately £400 billion and employing several thousand people.

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China: The next frontier for asset managers

China: The next frontier for asset managers

A country once assumed to be impenetrable for investing and fundraising, China is now turning course. The last five years have seen a number of positive reforms being implemented making it easier for foreign institutions to invest into China’s sizeable equity and bond market through initiatives such as the Hong Kong-Shanghai/Shenzhen Stock Connect, China Interbank Bond Market (CIBM) Direct and Bond Connect, all of which have helped result in the country’s A Shares being added to the MSCI EM Index.

That the market has been so under-tapped by foreign institutions presents an excellent opportunity for fund managers looking to generate returns or identify niche investments. The depth of the country’s equity and fixed income markets is not the only draw for foreign managers though. As a growing emerging market, China has undergone an unprecedented middle-class boom, but many ordinary people are growing impatient with the desultory interest being paid on retail deposits and are searching for new places to put their capital. This underserved retail market could be a lucrative avenue for asset managers.  

In addition to its prospering middle class, China also has a large high-net-worth-investor (HNWI) community, with Boston Consulting Group estimating their investable assets could reach $16 trillion by 2021. However, only 4% of this demographic actually puts money into foreign financial institutions to invest compared to 87% who leave their cash in private banks owned by domestic commercial banks. The country’s institutional market – comprised of major sovereign wealth funds such as CIC – is already sophisticated and well-versed in the mechanics of traditional and alternative asset management.

Opening up slowly

China’s market regulators – as part of their broader reform effort – have attempted to make it easier for foreign asset managers to launch onshore products through a handful of market entry channels. Beginning in 2013, a small number of established foreign private funds including hedge funds were allowed to raise a limited amount of capital (quotas were initially set at $100m/fund) in onshore vehicles from mainland HNWIs to invest overseas through a scheme known as the Qualified Domestic Limited Partnership (QDLP) programme.

Some well-known private funds did register under QDLP, raising $1.23 billion in the process but its wider adoption was stonewalled when the scheme was suspended following the imposition of capital controls in 2015 amid the equity market volatility. QDLP has since resumed though, while its overall quota tally has increased to $5 billion.  However, the quotas being allocated to individual managers are still quite small, making it difficult for organisations to fully justify the costs of setting up operations on the mainland.

QDLP was subsequently followed up with the Mutual Recognition of Funds (MRF) initiative, a passporting scheme unveiled in 2015 between Hong Kong and China which streamlined the distribution process for fund managers looking to sell to retail investors in each other’s jurisdiction. Flows to date have been fairly limited, as China’s regulators slowed down authorisations of Hong Kong managers during the equity market volatility in 2015 and 2016. Nonetheless, this is expected to pick up over the next few years as the country continues on its liberalisation path. 

Another factor behind the disappointing MRF uptake was the requirement that foreign asset managers enter into a 49/51 joint venture (JV) with Chinese financial institutions, a compromise many organisations were reluctant to make, mainly because of the operational risk it incurred. The China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) has since confirmed that foreign asset managers can now obtain a 51% stake in mainland financial institutions, adding this threshold will be removed in the next three years, eventually rising to 100%.

The most recent entry route for asset managers looking to distribute into China is WFOE (wholly foreign-owned enterprise), a scheme which excuses foreign firms from having to purchase a minority stake in a local provider, allowing them to operate under their own brand name. Unlike MRF, firms authorised under WFOE can only raise funds from institutional clients and not retail and must invest in the local market. While the WFOE is not available to retail at present, this may change, a development which could result in the scheme cannibalising the MRF.

The opportunity for boutiques

China is opening up, and it is a market boutiques ought to be considering, at least on the institutional side where they are free to market directly to professional investors that have the ability to allocate capital outside of China.  

At present, most foreign asset managers lack the brand recognition among Chinese retail investors, a hindrance which will force them to partner with local banks and platforms for distribution purposes, potentially at significant cost. However, two-way distribution relationships may be possible.  Boutiques should certainly not rush into China, but it ought to be a market on their radar as it could offer enormous fundraising opportunities in the next five to ten years.